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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Final Chapter

Last Word

At the beginning of 2006 I was off filming Franz Ferdinand in South America. They were supporting U2 and did their own shows in Rio, Chile and Argentina. My last few films had been very controlled stylistically so it was a great opportunity to return to my punk roots. Later that same year I was on the road again documenting the birth of The Good, The Bad and The Queen, a ‘Dickensian’ dub combo created by Damon Albarn and featuring Paul Simonon of The Clash and Tony Allen who was actually Fela Kuti’s drummer. The following year they released their debut album; shaped by this city it was a classic London record, subtly reflecting the mix that rocks our mutual boat with Damon’s voice putting a quintessential English stamp on it. It couldn’t have been made anywhere else. It was the perfect soundtrack to the movie that is London. Pure technicolor! In Spring 2007 I get a call from BBC 6 Music offering me a regular late night radio show. I’ve been hosting Culture Clash Radio on the station from that time till this and I got to tell you it’s one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done. Now some would have you believe I’m at home listening to reggae 24/7 but that’s not the way I roll. The worlds a big and beautiful place and I embrace it all (although it helps if it’s got a wicked bass line). So my show crosses time space and genre and in my 5 years of broadcasting I’ve never played a record I don’t like.

Don Letts Final Chapter 1

I get my bass fix d.j’ing both here and abroad playing a reggae based selection. We’re talking the history and legacy of Jamaican bass culture. It’s very much in the spirit of what I was doing during my days at the Roxy - using my culture to turn people on. I come from a generation whose soundtrack helped empower the listener, helped people to be all they could be and reveled in individuality. I’m living proof that music has that potential. When I was starting out, music was an anti-establishment thing, now it seems like a lot of people get into music to be part of the establishment. I mean how radical can you be if that's what you want? The future’s all about new values. We live in a cultural climate that feels like punk never happened and Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame has become a nightmare of people that can’t justify three. For the most part Western culture has become increasing conservative, if not darn right stagnant. Nevertheless I remain optimistic. The punk spirit is like the force in Star Wars—you can’t stop it. There’s always something going on, you just got to look in new places and like Joe Strummer said, ‘make sure your bullshit detector is finely tuned’. Look to the amateur and the naïve for the new ideas in the future, everyone else is reading from the same book. Personally a punk attitude still serves me on a day-to-day basis. As I’ve said all along, a good idea attempted is still better that a bad idea perfected and I’m still turning my problems into my assets.

            Don Letts Final Chapter 2

In 2011 I was presented with the opportunity of treading familiar ground. Big Audio Dynamite reformed for a 6 month tour and if nothing else it was a great way to deal with mid-life crisis (and much safer than riding a motor-bike!). We played some seriously high profile festivals around the globe as well as sell out gigs on our home turf – and yes I still had coloured stickers on my keyboards. For my part I had a great time, it was cool to me standing on stage with Mick Jones and the boys again. It some how felt like the third act of Big Audio Dynamite ‘the musical’ and I count myself as a very lucky man indeed for being presented with the opportunity.

Don Letts Final Chapter 3

As it turns out I’m still hustling my way through the 21st century, o.k so it’s a creative hustle but a hustle never the less. Like many I survive by juggling several different things. So in that respect I’m ahead of the game cause I’ve spent my whole life doing that – and luckily I enjoy it, as for me it’s all part of a whole. And in my book if you can make a buck doing something you enjoy you're a winner. By the end of this year I will have seen fifty-six summers. I guess I should be both older and wiser, but I think I got screwed on the wiser part. What I have learnt is that the evolution of mankind is painfully slow. I know this by looking at myself. Now you might look around the bubble that you’re living in and think otherwise, then you turn on the news and it's a reality check. But when I think of what my parents achieved in their lifetime and the selfless sacrifices they made to set us up, I’m pleased with my part in the process. I’ve learned that for the most part we have to work towards goals we probably won't live to see. That kind of sucks, but the small changes I see in my bubble get me through the day. I still want to paint a new portrait of London on film—every city should have a great movie (as well as a great song). I want to celebrate the cultural mix, the juxtaposition of old and new, the very duality of my existence. I want to reflect on the input we as immigrants have made as I believe that it is this influx that has put the Great back in Britain. Hanging on to an island mentality ain't going anywhere. It’s the creativity that comes out of the multicultural mix that makes London swing.

              Don Letts Final 4

P.S As luck would have it at the beginning of 2012 I was approached by Fred Perry to create a film celebrating the labels heritage for its 60th anniversary. 'Subculture' traces the journey of British style driven youth movements from Teds n’ Rockers to Mods and Skinheads through Soul-Boys, Punk and Two Tone right up to Casuals, Rave and Britpop. I realized while making the film that in one way or another I’ve actually been touched by, or involved in, nearly every one of these tribes (yes I’m that old!). But most importantly it re-enforced the impact of my culture from the time of my parent’s arrival to this very day. Funnily enough I’ve been so busy being a part of it, I’d never really had time to think about it.

Click HERE for all posts by Don Letts.

As part of our 60 Year Anniversary Celebrations, Don Letts has created six short films exploring British music and street style. The Don Letts Subculture Films are now avilable to watch on Fred Perry Subculture HERE.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 17

Clash City Rockers - Part 1

Out of The Clash guys, I got to know Paul Simonon first through our mutual love of reggae. We’d swap mix tapes, which was our way of communicating and serious currency back in the day. I had tapes of Mikey Dread’s late night radio show in Jamaica called Dread at the Controls, which I lent to Paul. The show played reggae exclusively and whenever it was on in Jamaica the crime rate went down! Mikey’s knowledge, approach and experience of making reggae music was invaluable to the Clash during the Sandinista sessions, and the end results of his contributions were stunning, with tracks like “Bankrobber” and “One More Time”. People make quite a big deal out of the punky/reggae connection, but what were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones listening to? It was black music. It’s just that to the uninitiated it wasn’t that obvious within their music, but with the Clash it was right up front. It was in their lyrics, in their bass-lines and their subject matter. Not only did the Clash cover Willi Williams’ “Armagideon Time”, Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and Toots and the Maytals “Pressure Drop”, they name checked Prince Far-I on “Clash City Rockers”, Dr Alimantado on “Rudy Can’t Fail”, the Abyssinians “Sattamassaganna” on “Jimmy Jazz” and Dillinger, Leroy Smart, Ken Boothe and Delroy Wilson on “White Man In Hammersmith Palais”. It made me immensely proud that my culture was being represented by these guys instead of being lost within self-interpretation. With the Clash it was not white reggae; it was punk and reggae. Their songs brought some of their culture to my culture. Reggae spoke in a language the punks could identify with. It was the anti-fashion fashion, the rebel stance, and importantly the fact that reggae was a kind of musical reportage, talking about things that mattered. Songs like “Money in My Pocket”, “I Need a Roof” and “Chant Down Babylon” struck an obvious chord with “the youth”.

Don Letts Chapter 17 1

I think one of the advantages that I had when I started making the music videos was that none of the bands that I worked with had aspirations of becoming actors or film-makers, of which the Clash were the best example. They just made music and let me get on with my job as filmmaker. They were obviously aware of my work with The Punk Rock Movie and the PiL video and chose me to be the man for their debut single ‘London Calling’. Now the punk look was supposed to be about individuality but after the Bill Grundy episode with the Pistols it soon became a uniform. The Clash were smart enough to see it was painting them into a corner. Punk was supposed to be about freedom and liberation, and all of a sudden you had the ‘punk police’ saying, “you can’t wear this, you can’t do that, you should sound like this.” The sound of ‘London Calling’ was the first real challenge to those punk shackles, throwing soul, reggae and rockabilly into the equation. It was cool seeing them break out of the restrictions that punk had very quickly developed. The Clash had also changed their look to an East End gangster style. They were always image-conscious rather than fashion conscious.

Don Letts Chapter 17 2

                                                                    Mikey Dread, R.I.P

For “London Calling” I decided to shoot the video on a pier in Battersea on the River Thames in the afternoon and wanted cameras on a boat to get the right angles. Now I didn’t know anything about tides and when we got there to set up it was out and the cameras were fifteen feet too low. Then there was the current. After setting each shot up we found that we were moving further and further away from the pier. By the time we had sorted out all these problems, it started to piss down with rain and it was nighttime. After about three takes I just wanted to get out of there. I am now told that the “London Calling” video is a classic. It was a textbook punk situation, turning your problems into assets. Around this time the Clash had decided against playing large venues and were due to play at the Lewisham Odeon in South East London. I took the opportunity to shoot the “Bankrobber” video in the afternoon before the gig. Prompted by the title I decided to quickly get some shots of Johnny Green and Topper’s drum roadie Baker running out of a bank on Lewisham High Street with bags of money dressed as villains. This was intercut with the Clash playing “Bankrobber” live at the Odeon with Mikey Dread at the controls. As I was filming the last shots of Baker and Green running to the back door of the Odeon, two police cars came round the corner with their sirens blazing. Armed police jumped out and had Baker, Green and myself pinned against the wall. Johnny Green told them that we were art students working on a project. For the “Call Up”, a song about dodging the draft, we originally wanted to shoot the video in a cemetery but the local council refused permission and at the very last minute we ended up shooting at former sixties pop star Chris Farlowe’s warehouse—which was full of military memorabilia and equipment as he was a renowned collector. The song was about registration for the draft in America—a subject dear to Mick Jones since he had attended a draft demonstration in New York. The setting for the video shoot was just perfect—another example of turning problems into assets.

Don Letts Chapter 17 3

In the aftermath of the initial punk explosion it looked like the major record companies had regained control and were having it all their own way. The Pistols had imploded, the Clash had finally signed to CBS after months of negotiations and I had reinvented myself as a filmmaker. So it was a period of death and re-birth for all, and everyone looked to the Clash to take things to another level.

Part two of 'Clash City Rockers' will be available to read soon. Click HERE for all posts by Don Letts.

As part of our 60 Year Anniversary Celebrations, Don Letts has created six short films exploring British music and street style. The Don Letts Subculture Films are now avilable to watch on Fred Perry Subculture HERE.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 16

We Only Wanted To Be Loved 

My first venture into making music videos was courtesy of John Lydon for the debut single of his new venture Public Image Limited, the band he’d formed after the break up of the Sex Pistols. Before the PiL promo, I was Don Letts DJ at the Roxy, dread with a camera. All of a sudden I had a 20-man film crew around me. This was a situation created by the ACTT film union and as I was not a member at that time I was a ‘ghost’ director. Due to my total inexperience I went for the safe option going for a performance piece. It’s only John’s dynamics with the band that gives the video any substance whatsoever. Working with PiL was always tense as they were so volatile. The original line-up of Lydon, Keith Levene, Jah Wobble and Jim Walker fused dub and rock into a warped, paranoid and claustrophobic sound. As long as I had known John, he had always been listening to reggae and avant-garde stuff like Can’s Tago Mago, Curved Air and Tangerine Dream. All these elements came together in the early PiL tunes. I was particularly taken with the King Tubby mix style of their first album, Public Image and its follow-up, the hugely influential Metal Box.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 16, Don & John

Everyone in PiL was on ‘something’ different (hell we all were!) Some were up, some were down, and others were coming in sideways. The initial optimism they had soon turned dark and out of that chaos came moments of brilliance. Jeannette and I had been an item for a very important part of our lives, but around this time we split up. Girlfriend broke my heart. I’d introduced Jeannette to John, who then got her to manage the band. She’d go on to eventually become a part of PiL (that’s her on the cover of their Flowers of Romance album). When Jeannette got involved with PiL, I was off in a huff. Soon after, Keith Levene and Jah Wobble needed some money, so they ended up making a single for Virgin Records called The Steel Leg vs. The Electric Dread EP. They got me down to the studio to work on some vocals, even though I had never sung in my life. I remember sitting on the stairs with a microphone trying to write some words. Eventually I said, “OK guys, I’ll go home and work out some proper lyrics.” I never heard back from them and the next thing I knew the record was out. They’d used my demo vocals and stuck them with a track they’d worked up. The picture on the cover featured someone with a bag over his head. Now I’d come up with the title “Haile Unlikely” and I was messing around with this idea of “OK, I’m black, but I don’t want to go back to Africa.” I was basically saying, “I’m a black British Dread and I ain’t going nowhere! Now truth be told the record’s crap and looking back I can laugh at the whole thing but what’ll always piss me off is the picture on the sleeve - I mean people thought it was me for Christ sakes!

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 16, John & Jeanette

PiL’s headquarters were in Gunter Grove, Chelsea, where John Lydon lived. It was like the Addams Family house he even had a cat called Satan that he trained to fetch things for him. I once took reggae legend Dr Alimantado round to the flat to see John. After the physical and verbal abuse John was getting on the streets during the Pistols era, Alimantado became one of his heroes, and “Born for a Purpose” his anthem. “If you feel like you have no reason for living, don’t determine my life,” sang Dr Alimantado on the classic track which he penned after a near-fatal “accident”. In 1977, John Lydon, then Rotten, named it one of his top ten tunes of all time. The Clash would also later pay respect with the lyric “like the Doctor who’s born for a purpose” on “Rudie Can’t Fail” from London Calling. Joe Strummer once told me that Dr Alimantado’s “Poison Flour” was a tune that Paul Simonon played all the time, citing it as an example of how to sing about things that had an effect on daily lives. It was this reportage quality in the lyrics of 1970s reggae that captured the punks’ imagination (along with the bass lines and the weed!). So “Born for a Purpose” quickly became one of the few records to actually bridge the curious alliance that was punk and reggae during that period in the UK.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 16

When you went round to Gunter Grove it was like a trial by fire. John would psychologically mess with you. If you had a weakness, he would find it. People would pop round John’s for a visit and leave psychological wrecks. It was only those that could stand there and take it that John would let back in. For Leo Williams’ birthday (Basement 5, B.A.D, Dreadzone) John decided to throw a party at Gunter Grove. The two tribes were on the floor with their Red Stripe, sensi and the heaviest dub reggae courtesy of the John Lydon Sound System. I can remember the bemused look on John’s face as he watched Althea and Donna, who were also in attendance, skank the night away. This was a “punky reggae party” before Bob Marley even penned the tune. One night there was a police raid. John freaked, all he knew was someone had entered the flat so he ran down the stairs with a huge sword someone had given him as a present. The police must have wondered what the hell was going on. Their sniffer dog chased Satan the cat, who climbed up onto a speaker in front of John’s teapot where his weed was stashed. The police thought the dog was barking at the cat, and didn’t think any more of it. Satan had saved the day! John was duly taken down the cop shop, bare-footed in his dressing gown and pyjamas and had to walk all the way back home dressed like that. He was seriously pissed off and moved to New York soon after.

Read all posts by Don Letts HERE